Ed Stern's biggest success after 13 years as Playhouse in the Park's producing artistic director is the 2004 Regional Theatre Tony Award. His network TV shout out to Cincinnati, by far the biggest Queen City plug in recent memory, was sweet, positive and more than a little Pollyannaish: "A very, very big thank you to the great city of Cincinnati, Ohio, where the arts -- all the arts, performing and visual -- are flourishing. You are the best."
With all the hype, hoopla and happiness surrounding Stern these past few days, it's easy to understand how he'd want to forget the stinging controversy over Glyn O'Malley's Paradise, a play about two West Bank teenage girls, one Jewish and one Palestinian, that was shelved from school tours after protests from the Muslim community. Recent memories of longtime Playhouse supporters Lois and Richard Rosenthal pulling funding from the annual New Play Prize because they disagreed with Stern's choice are pushed aside as well, at least for the time being.
Stern's greatest setback -- his stalled plan to create an incubator theater offsite from the Playhouse's Mount Adams home -- has been replaced by something glorious, a real lifetime achievement. The Regional Tony puts the Playhouse on the map, and it'll be interesting to see what Stern and Playhouse leaders do with the added recognition.
If we are to bypass the baloney and buy into Stern's love for Cincinnati, if the arts truly are flourishing locally, then it has a lot to do with grassroots creative projects like Cicada: The Musical, a wonderful give-back to the community by Paul Kreft and a diverse group of artists ranging from ages 20 to 55.
Over two recent weekend nights at the worn and rickety College Hill Town Hall, Kreft (performing as Betty Anderson), returning artists Kim Humphries and Susannah Rosenthal and numerous locals such as Kendall Bruns, Gary Gaffney and Andy Marko came together to create a series of funny, eclectic performance pieces around the theme of cicadas.
Like a true variety show, some performance pieces outshined others. Eric Appleby paid homage to Matthew Barney's tap-dancing satyr from his Cremaster films with "The Cyclical Cicada," about a tap dancing crooner clad in a bright summer suit.
The highlight of the show was spoken word artist Keith Wahle and dancer Claire Miller, whose three performance sketches fused the spirit of performance art, dance and vaudeville comedy similar to Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Wahle and Miller played off each other perfectly as if they'd been together all their lives.
Although not as inspired or as dazzling as Humphries' 1999 Rock opera Gillombardo's Hams, the credited inspiration for Cicada: The Musical, there were more than enough highlights to offset the avant-garde baloney that often drags down shoestring productions.
"The process was more significant than the event," Kreft says, speaking a few days after the final show. "The fact that it was well received was gratifying. But if the hall had caught on fire and burned down, it wouldn't have been for naught. Everyone should get a chance to do something like this in their lives."
The cicada show went on with only nine stage lights and no complete rehearsals. It perservered on personal credit cards and in-pocket contributions from the performers.
The final show went on despite Kreft's afternoon hospitalization for a kidney stone. He showed up soon after the start of the performance, slightly drugged but ready to contribute.
"It's a real statement about the nature of the arts community in Cincinnati," Kreft says. "It's not one of those predatory type of things. I don't like to say we drew more people than Fringe Festival things. I don't like to draw more comparisons. Let's just say that things will happen 10 years from now just like this happened, due to Gillombardo's Hams."
Kreft's dream about new, regular avant-garde performances is a good one. For added luck, maybe Stern will let Kreft rub his Tony.